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The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate, and Resistance in Palestine

January 6, 2018 at 1:51 pm

  • Book Author(s): Bernard Regan
  • Published Date: November 2017
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Hardback: 288 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786632470

Bernard Regan might have simply retired from serving on the National Executive of the National Union of Teachers, and continued to be on the Executive of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Instead, he decided to get a PhD, studying with Nur Masalha, who has produced 11 books on the history of the Palestinian struggle. If researching and writing about the Balfour Declaration was daunting under Masalha’s gaze, it’s not obvious from the resulting book.

In fact, this version of Regan’s thesis in book format is a two-pronged study of the British Mandate’s construction. He uses secondary sources, books already published on the topic, but adorns his narrative with supplementary gems of private commentary, excavated from deep inside the paper-trail mine of HM Government; all those memos, correspondence and reports that are now available to the public at the National Archives. This recipe makes for an insightful overview of the troubled history.

The approach here is to see the Mandate government not so much as a colonial project as an Imperialist endeavour. By the time of the Great War, it was all about international finance and not, as during the Ottoman Empire, simply extracting taxes from the local community. Since international trade was the gift of private companies, who’d rather have made hay in the monopolist manner, the Foreign Office did its best to ensure the smoothest political path.

Great Britain already had an edge in trade with India and Egypt via investment shares in the Suez Canal. As the Balfour Declaration itself emerged during the middle of World War One, the oil in Mosul was becoming the mojo of the new mechanised warfare, and so the War Cabinet, the Colonial Office and almost everyone with power within the Westminster web wanted to weave an exclusively British influence from the Mediterranean to Melbourne.

While there have been a muddle of motives ascribed to the famous Declaration, and they aren’t ignored in the book, its focus is on Palestine’s place in the big picture. The Holy Land couldn’t promise the power of petroleum or all the tea required for the Empire’s cups, but it was well placed as a base. Trading vessels needed convenient ports for refuelling and Haifa would do very nicely. Shipping aside, though, trans-landscape conveyance of information, via rails and wires, was especially key to getting the jump on monied competitors such as Germany and France.

Helping the Zionist Jews to take over Palestine served Westminster’s interests in its lust for world economic power, as well as the British leadership’s inherent racism. Promising the Arab elites independence (via the McMahon-Hussein correspondence) and the French the power to rule Syria and Lebanon (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) achieved these contradictory goals. Of course, the Arabs didn’t get independence and the British Mandate for Palestine was doomed to failure.

The author shows how the British tried to placate the a’yan, the local notables, playing the different Arab Palestinian factions off each other. He also unpacks the peasantry’s political rucksack, especially the increasing emptiness of the purse after HM Government gave legal and financial advantage to the Zionists. This wouldn’t have mattered as much if the Jewish takeover establishment didn’t insist on segregation in residence, employment and almost every aspect of social life. It is shown that the Arab middle classes wanted to believe in the British concepts of law and justice, while at the same time the fellahin lost their land rights and had to be exploited as the urban poor.

Many sources are drawn into this narrative, embracing religious leadership (Philip Mattar’s The Mufti of Jerusalem); the modernisation of middle class women’s movement (Ellen L. Fleischmann’s The Nation and its ‘New’ Women); the plight of peasantry (Yehoshua Porath’s two-volume The Palestinian-Arab National Movement); the financial board game (Barbara J. Smith’s The Roots of Separatism in Palestine); and international legal history (Victor Kattan’s From Coexistence to Conquest), to name but a few important areas. There have been a great many books on the Balfour Declaration and the resulting British Mandate occupation, and some seriously significant ones have been highlighted here.

Regan supplements these with hush-hush internal Government correspondence of the Colonial Office (merged to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the late 1960s), now available at the National Archives. Readers and researchers will have read recent reports regarding missing tranches of these unique records, so we’re grateful that some of their nuggets have been set out on display.

One Major General P. C. Palin, stationed in Cairo, cautioned against the rise of Zionist muscle against the Palestinian Arabs during violent anti-immigration riots of 1920-1921. His report was “unpublished”, which says much for the ever-keen HM Stationery Office not to print up another work for the state administration’s bookstacks. Palin’s commission (50 days, 152 witnesses) concluded that, “The Zionists’ system of intelligence” was superior to anything London could concoct. And the “90 per cent” of Arabs, resentful of Westminster’s departmental duplicity, were elaborately planning “an insurrection which may involve the whole of Islam in the Near East.” The Haycraft Commission Report of 1921 echoed this warning, and John Hope Simpson’s 1930 report gave a thumbs-down to the legally dodgy, “extraterritorialised” theft of land from Palestinian families, but HM Government seemingly had a severe case of Imperialism, an autoimmunity that prevented it from recognising either political fact or human morality.

Light is cast on numerous public demonstrations by Palestinians, throughout the Mandate era, but the Government chose to ignore and resist them. Palestinian Congresses had no influence; in a foretelling of today’s sham Peace Process, even Winston Churchill, considered a white supremacist by many today, merely suggested that they negotiate with Chaim Weizmann and his Zionist Organisation.

Another strength of Regan’s book is in following the money, calling out Westminster’s abuse of administrative power in the awarding of major development contracts to the self-segregating Jewish Zionists with either considerable capital or clear avenues to credit. He also criticises the Arab Palestinian elite, who weren’t keen on solidarity when it hurt their financial interests.

Conciseness is the point with this book, almost to a fault; I had to read occasional passages multiple times. The index is fulsome but categorised in arbitrary conurbation headings that make it a disappointing chore to use, so I suspect that a keyword-searchable Kindle or PDF-like version would be most useful. Still, this book is a welcome, condensed tool for understanding why the Palestinian Arabs didn’t succeed with an early intifada, couldn’t shake off the yoke of the Union Flag, and why the revolving British political class continually assisted Zionism, even if not to the satisfaction of the era’s Zionists. It should become a standard university text for those studying this history.